How the Food Dudes put their multi-faceted stamp on Toronto’s dining scene
L–R: Niman and McClenahan yukking it up at their restaurant Rasa
It’s a sunny Wednesday afternoon and 50-odd members of the Food Dudes catering staff are gathered in the offices of their east end facility for a team meeting. Among the crowd are event planners and administration staff, plus chefs and cooks in logo-embroidered jackets decorated with remnants of the morning’s work. Food Dudes co-founder Adrian Niman instructs on new procedures to improve the company’s catering operation.
Just half of the Food Dudes’ 100 plus staff are represented here. And although Niman, who started the business out of his mom’s kitchen, may be leading the agenda, he’s not the only one holding the proverbial microphone. A chef suggests ways to improve food storage practices; a staff member proposes how to effectively tweak transportation to events.
A key member of the crowd is Brent McClenahan. As the operation’s creative director and business development lead, he’s more than Niman’s right-hand man. Together, they’re the official co-owners of the Food Dudes, overseeing two acclaimed restaurants — Rasa and Omaw — two grab-and-go Pantry eateries and two food trucks. Oh, and they cater over 1,500 events a year.
Despite this sounding like an overflowing platter of projects, the Food Dudes shows no signs of slowing down. Come June 23, the dudes are throwing their Block Party IV at Toronto Event Centre — an epic food-meets-art-meets-music event with over 3,000 attendees expected. Also on deck is a sister restaurant for Rasa on King West, a third Pantry slated to open in PATH in addition to an expanded Pantry prep space. There’s also a casual Italian eatery destined for the east end of the city.
The most enigmatic of the upcoming projects would have to be one headed by Omaw chef and Food Dudes partner Matt Blondin. He’s currently working on a new ticket-based restaurant (think theatre!) set to launch next spring.
“It’s an experimental format I’ve been working with lately and am really looking forward to launching,” Blondin says. With a capacity of 12 seats, the restaurant will offer diners a multiple-tier, tasting menu–only concept. Although more details on the new projects remain hush-hush, the Toronto fooderati are surely gearing up to pounce. It’s safe to say the Food Dudes is keeping busy.
But before Niman and McClenahan launched one of the top food operations in town, their professional partnership got off to an explosive start. It was 2009, and McClenahan was helping Niman out with a catering gig at a private Lawrence Park home — one of Niman’s most important clients. All was going well until McClenahan attempted to pop the cork off a bottle of red wine.
“For some reason, there was a lot of pressure in the bottle,” McClenahan says. “The wine exploded all over their crown moulding and ceiling.”
Hoping to eventually join the Food Dudes, McClenahan was worried about the impression he left on Niman.
Niman grew up at Yonge and Eg, studied hospitality and tourism in Guelph prior to gaining experience at Mark McEwan’s North 44 and the Michelin-starred Reads Hotel in Majorca. McClenahan, hailing from rural Ottawa, studied kinesiology and pre-med at U of T before shifting gears.
At the time of the wine incident, the pair had been friends for just over two years. Despite McClenahan’s concerns, Niman saw through the flub, trusting that his work ethic and design-focused mindset could give the fledgling operation just the right boost. So the following year, Niman made McClenahan a partner.
From there on, the Food Dudes flourished. Niman was in the kitchen crafting his signature global fare.
“We like bold flavours,” Niman says. “We don’t stick to one region; we’re very diverse.”
Meanwhile, McClenahan honed the operation’s brand and identity. As the business grew, Lindsay Klein (now a partner) took over administration duties.
The next turning point came when the Food Dudes moved into a 2,500-square-foot kitchen at the back of a club. This was Niman’s first taste of running a restaurant, operating Bloke & 4th’s three-day-a-week supper club program.
“It was great practise,” Niman says, “but it wasn’t how I envisioned my first restaurant to be.”
So after two years of bachelorettes and b-day parties, it was exit time. Nabbing a 10,000-square-foot facility at Lakeshore and Carlaw allowed the pair to focus on both the catering and the food trucks, the latter of which had been drawing crowds as they worked through the festival circuit.
But the drive to open a restaurant was still there, so in 2014 Rasa arrived on Harbord. Dishing out its signature international cuisine (both Niman and McClenahan have done their fair share of travelling), it quickly earned spots on “best of” lists. Omaw soon followed, with Blondin and his refined southern fare steering the ship.
Pantry came about as a way to make use of surplus items from catering gigs, using a protein plus two sides as their business model. With a retail space built into their east end catering facility, it made sense to open a place for grab-and-go meals. A second Pantry opened in Rosedale last fall, and the catering arm continues to grow.
“Food Dudes does over 175 weddings a year,” says Niman. “We do more than 10 events on every single Saturday. What really drives us is creating. I never get more excited than when we get a new space.”